Today is the eve of the great summer exodus from Paris – tomorrow is a red day on the roads. This year, we hear that more French are choosing to holiday in France. Favourite destinations like Morocco, Tunisia or Egypt are off-limits for obvious reasons. Even in a ‘normal’ year, the French are more faithful to their own country than many other nationalities.
Discounting the French themselves, France is one of the most popular holiday destinations in Europe. What is it about France that is so evocative? When we still lived in England, we chose to come to France on holiday most of the time. Proximity to the UK is surely a factor. But it must also be that France somehow manages to bring together so many of the things that we seek. And there are certain symbols or icons that define the essence of France.
I was pondering this question recently while writing an article about the history and production of the French beret – a classic French icon, although it didn’t actually originate in France. [You’ll be able to read the article in the August issue of France Magazine].
There are some obvious ones: the Eiffel Tower, the Citroën 2CV, the baguette, Edith Piaf, the tricolor flag, accordion music.
Here are a few other things that said ‘France’ to me when we used to come here on holiday; and they still do:
Long vistas of plane trees lining country roads. Some jobsworth decided several years ago that they should all be cut down to avoid people driving into them. Teaching people to drive better and preventing them drink-driving would be a more appropriate solution in my view. Fortunately, the mass execution of plane trees doesn’t seem to have occurred yet.
Sunflower fields: part of the landscape of southern France. Our farmer neighbour has planted a field of them for the first time this year, although they haven’t taken well in places.
Rows of vines, at any time of year. In winter, the gnarled, freshly-pruned stumps look dead; in spring they are covered in vibrant green; in late summer, the ripe purple bunches hang heavy on their stems; and in autumn, the leaves glow gold and crimson. I love the well-disciplined rows of the Gaillac vineyards that stretch into infinity over the hills at a particular spot south of Vaour.
The sight and sound of boules being played on a dusty court. I find the ‘chock’ of the boules as they clash extremely evocative.
Garlic. No French (savoury) dish worth its salt is lacking in this ingredient. There are even two separate garlic festivals in our region each summer: one in Beaumont-de-Lomagne for white garlic and one in Lautrec for the pink variety.
Faded advertisements for outmoded drinks like Byrrh and Gentiane painted onto crumbling barn walls. Does anyone still drink these apéritifs? You see bottles of them behind the bar in most rural cafés, so someone must.
The old genuine zinc bars where people stood and leant on their elbows while savouring an apéritif. There aren’t many of those left now.
Processions of cyclists clad in garish lycra, especially around Tour de France time. The French have a great respect for competitive cyclists and motorists always give them a wide berth.
The wonderful, elegant pre-war Citroëns with quirky suspension and running boards, redolent of Commissaire Maigret and the French résistance. You still see them around, lovingly restored by enthusiasts.
There are many more I could add – Impressionist paintings, smelly cheeses, the unmistakable summer whiff of French drains – but that will do for now. Are the ones I’ve listed still typically French or am I in danger of sliding into a nostalgic haze for France as we think it used to be? Isn’t that why we Brits all come here?
So what symbolises France to you?
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I’ve tried your email address a couple of times, but it came up with the undelivered thing owing to a wrong address ….. so they may have arrived or not; one can never tell. Anyway, I had wanted to say that if you were free, I think meeting at V de R market would work for me on the 14th July. My email address is email@example.com
A presto! Liz
I got your email, thanks, and have replied with our phone number. Not sure if the market will take place on 14/07 as it’s Bastille Day and they tend not to run it on public holidays, but I will try to find out. Hope you manage to escape!
Personally, no trip to France is complete for me until I have that first bottle of Orangina, in the pear shaped bottle of course. Have tried it in other countries, but it just isnt the same.
I’ve never greatly cared for Orangina – I prefer the lemony one; can’t remember the name – but I do like the bottle.
@Deborah, yes they are stuck in a timewarp where seventies pop music is concerned. They also nurture enduring adoration for long-dead singers like Jaques Brel and Claude François.
@Stephanie, the smell of coffee is a good one.
@Catherine: that sounds like pain perdu. I like the idea of quince cheese with it – never tried it. You could try something like confiture à la myrtille as well.
@Statistics Freak, I might have known that drink would figure in your comment. You’re right about the nostalgia. Life in rural France still harks back to the fifties and sixties in England.
Like Catherine I like to experience France with my taste buds so I would add “Crême brûlée” and “Pastis” . The reason middle aged and older non-french people love France, I think, is a subconscious wish to move backwards in time. When I was a boy (in Sweden) one could pass a bakery and smell newly baked bread or go to the market. No more!! But you still can in France.
I’ll add plastic water bottles that my neighour Mme Bouyssou fills with warm milk and her fresh brown eggs with orange-yellow yolks. Add a few mushrooms gleaned from autumn fields and fresh herbs to make the best omelets I’ve ever tasted. Or even better yet, slices of old bread soaked in eggy milk with salt, pepper and cinnamon, browned in a buttery pan and served piping hot with quince cheese and washed down with a bowl of café au lait! Yum.
All very evocative. I’d add the smell of strong coffee as you walk past a cafe. On our early long-distance cycling holidays in France, pre kids, it was the coffee stops that kept us going!
Faded advertisements for drinks on crumbling stone walls – perfect! I’d add to your excellent list: the enduring love of 1970s pop music, with emphasis on the Stones and Supertramp. Surely no nation’s local radio stations play “Soo – pear – trompe” more…
(Many thanls for your lovely recent comments on my blog, Vanessa – much appreciated, especially as I haven;t had much blogging time recently.)